Amid a Nationwide Push for Museum Workers’ Rights, the Staff of LA MOCA Is Unionizing

The museum's senior management says it does "not believe that this union is in the best interest of our employees or the museum."

MOCA LA. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images.

Staff at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles have become the latest cultural workers to seek union status. Employees have called on the art museum’s senior management to voluntarily recognize their right to collectively negotiate new and improved contracts. But it may not happen without a fight. 

The announcement on Friday, November 22, sees the LA institution joining a growing number of museums across the US where workers are pushing hard to unionize in order to improve working conditions, negotiate wages, and obtain better job security.

More than 50 MOCA employees called on the institution to recognize their union with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, according to a statement from the organization, which already represents several groups of museum employees, including those at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. The AFSCME has also filed a petition for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board. 

An audiovisual technician at MOCA, who requested to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation from other workplaces, said that the push to unionize was “about coming together in solidarity as artists, craftspeople, and workers with the hopes of making MOCA a more democratic and humane workplace.” The worker added that it was also about fighting for “a sea change” in how museums operate across the US. 

But the Los Angeles museum’s management seems resistant to the idea. In a statement provided to press, a representative for the museum said: “While we respect the right of employees to decide whether or not they wish to be represented by a union, we do not believe that this union is in the best interest of our employees or the museum.” Artnet News reached out to the museum for further comment but did not hear back by press time.

The museum announced last week that it would be offering free admission beginning January 11, 2020, thanks to a $10 million gift from the philanthropist and board president Carolyn Clark Powers. Museum director Klaus Biesenbach said in a statement that free entry “is essential for MOCA to be an active, civic-minded institution, open and inviting to our communities.”

Some members of staff think its civic-mindedness should include labor relations, too. “If MOCA is serious about its stated goal of entering a new chapter in its history, we believe that management needs to work with us to turn the page on its labor practices of the recent past, and to assure that staff are given fair wages, and stable working conditions,” the anonymous audiovisual technician said. 

The staff members launched their quest to unionize with a march on director Biesenbach’s office on Friday.

The employees’ move comes just weeks after former staff at LA’s Marciano Art Foundation also moved to unionize. The private institution abruptly announced plans to shutter, ostensibly due to “low attendance.” Labor organizers filed a complaint against the foundation over the timing of the closure, which has been described as a lock out. Ex-staffers have threatened to mount a Black Friday protest against its founders, the Marciano brothers, who own the fashion label Guess, targeting its stores nationwide.

This year, unions have been formed at New York’s New Museum, the Tenement Museum, and the Guggenheim, as well as at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. It has been more difficult for other West Coast museums, however, and the only major Los Angeles museum that has successfully formed a union remains the Museum of Tolerance. Union organizer Lylwyn Esangga, tells the Los Angeles Times that the AFSCME is also in discussions with other museums in LA and San Diego.

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